I’m honored and excited to have author Berit Ellingsen to the blog today! She lives and works in Norway, and if you check out her Facebook page you’ll see she roams around a lot and her photos have a lot of snow, ice, water and cats in them. I read her brilliant, impressively reviewed novel, Not Dark Yet, as a part of a Jeff VanderMeer Holiday storybundle a few months ago, I still think about it often, and I highly recommend it.
“Just finished “Not Dark Yet” by Berit Ellingsen. Her novel was recommended by Jeff VanderMeer and Ann VanderMeer as a part of their Winter Mix Tape Storybundle. “Not Dark Yet” is a brilliant story about human love and frailty in a time of earth-catastrophe, written with a crystal clear sense of the moment but also haunted by a dreamlike undercurrent of something akin to synchronicity. One of those books you don’t soon forget.”
(Berit was kind enough to have a further discussion with me about her book, and I’ve included the full transcript of that conversation at the end of the Q&A section). I have no doubt that Berit will be a fun, informative interview, so let’s get to it.
Q) Hi, Berit! Thank you so much for guesting on my blog! I guess the first question should be, is Not Dark Yet your first novel?
A) Thank you so much for inviting me to guest blog! I’m very happy to be here.
My first novel is The Empty City, which was translated to French by writer, translator, and publisher Francois Bon. The Empty City is a novel about silence and emptiness in the urban environment and is a sort of prequel to Not Dark Yet in that it shares a protagonist and some of the setting.
Q) Yes, I immediately did sense the thematic connection between the books as you described The Empty City. Could you provide us with a brief introduction to the story of Not Dark Yet?
A) In Not Dark Yet a man leaves his boyfriend and apartment in the city for a cabin in the mountains. His relationship has come to a head and he’s had an affair that for reasons revealed in the novel went really wrong as well. At the same time he has applied for the newly announced astronaut selection and starts training for it. He also joins his farmer neighbors on their project of clearing the moor around the cabin to grow cereals, because the climate has become warm enough to make this possible, and the neighbors want to take advantage of the new opportunities that are opening up.
A) I didn’t include any real life people or place names, but the climate change science and data about what’s happening with various plant and animals species as the environment changes are taken from various articles about climate change. The science in the novel is as close to correct as I could get it, to emphasize the climate change that is happening and what it might lead to, so that those effects aren’t just dismissed as “fantasy”, but that the reader realizes it is something that could happen in our world too.
I’m a science writer and follow climate science news, and used much of that in the novel.
Parts of some of the buildings mentioned in the novel, especially the laboratory in the start, the foyer at the space organization, and the restaurant in the hotel towards the end are from buildings that exist in our world. For example, the restaurant in the hotel is inspired by the restaurant in the Grand Hotel Des Bains in Venice where the film version of Thomas Mann’s Death In Venice was made. But other parts of the same hotel, such as the bar, are entirely fictional. I like architecture and interior design, so rooms and spaces are fun to create and think up.
Q) It is fun to invent physical spaces, isn’t it? I would say that Not Dark Yet is a warning. It’s a warning that our planet is inexorably sliding into disaster if we don’t deal with what we’re doing to our ecology and climate. It’s not the only thing the book is about by a long shot but would you say that’s a fair overall assessment?
A) Very much so! In the world of Not Dark Yet, climate change has gone a little farther than it has in our world, and progressed to what is called exponential climate change, where the climate and environmental variables change with exponential speed, due to self-reinforcing feedback mechanisms in the climate systems. These mechanisms are in effect today, and many climate scientists fear that some of them, such as the melting of the Arctic sea ice, will start to change exponentially. At any rate, the world in Not Dark Yet is one where climate change has really begun to make itself known, to everyone all over the planet, even in the temperate zone and rich countries.
Q) When we discussed Not Dark Yet before, you mentioned worrying that some westerners might be put off by the strong eastern-oriented cultural currents in the book, such as the Tao and the experience of the Buddhist monk. Was that worry justified in the reactions from readers? Personally, I loved those elements of the story.
A) I’m so glad you did, and I have heard from other readers who enjoyed it too, which I’m glad they did.
I think especially the chapter about the self-mummification hits a nerve with some people, and it is meant to do that. The way we view death in our modern societies is very impersonal and almost like death is the ultimate illness that we can’t wait to get rid of some day. So why would anyone who isn’t deeply depressed or politically brainwashed or terminally ill go towards death voluntarily? I found it difficult to understand myself when I read about it, but to approach an understanding one must know a bit about Buddhism and zen and how they view death, the mind, and the body. That said, the self-mummification process was rare even during those times when it was practiced, and understandably, only a very few did it. Today, Buddhist mummies are found in Japan, Tibet, Vietnam, China, and I assume Korea as well.
Some readers said they thought of the mummy and self-mummification process almost as an astronaut, someone leaving the Earth, and saw parallels between the protagonist’s training for the astronaut selection and the training that the self-mummifying monk does. That was something I hadn’t intended, so it was very cool readers “discovered” it.
Q) That is extremely cool. I love first and last lines in novels. I spend a lot of time on my opening and closing paragraphs, and often I already have both figured out before I even start writing the rest of the novel. I don’t know why I do that, exactly, other than wanting to start and end on a hook or a bang, but knowing how I open and close the story is a kind of anchor for both ends of the yet-to-be-created book, and reassuring, I guess. The opening line of Not Dark Yet is fantastic:
“Sometimes, in Brandon Minamoto’s dreams, he found a globe or a map of the world with a continent he hadn’t seen before.”
That got me. I need a good first sentence. When I browse in bookstores I often choose books to read based solely on what their first sentence does for me. Do you agonize over first sentences and last? First paragraphs and last?
A) I’m so glad you enjoyed that first line. That actually comes from a recurring dream I had when I would find a new continent on a map and think “How on Earth did I not see that before?” and I would be so happy over the discovery, and disappointed when it turned out only to be a dream.
I don’t agonize over first sentences and last, I tend to go with the first things that come to mind. But I do edit the first and the last chapters very carefully and reflect over whether they are the best start and the best ending for the story. I usually know what the ending will be, and work towards it during the first draft. Since I only plan the plot sketchily, a lot changes during writing and editing, and chapters tend to change places too. I regard it as experiments, and try different configurations to find the chapter sequence and plot structure that suits the story the best.
Q) As a Scandinavian, do you find that your harsh and beautiful environment influences your writing? If it does, do you involve it intentionally or does it just force its way into your writing? I ask this because I spent much of my life in Canada, and I have a great love/hate relationship with freezing weather and snow, but there’s no avoiding how wonderfully dramatic that kind of weather and landscape is.
A) The more I keep writing, the more I see how much the Scandinavian landscapes and environments influence my writing. I thought maybe it didn’t, but with Not Dark Yet I really see it clearly. That said, Not Dark Yet is not necessarily set in Scandinavia, since the climate and landscape of southern Scandinavia is shared with much of the rest of Europe, and the landscape of northern Scandinavia is similar to that of Alaska and Northern Russia.
All of the natural world influences my writing a lot, from climate and landscape, to animals and plants, and the living conditions for the people in it. These themes will probably continue to recur in my stories, whether they are set in the past or present or future.
Q) Let’s move on to your writing method. I like to heavily outline my story with 3×5 cards and then manipulate them as I go along. Do you outline a lot or just proceed with a general idea of where you’re heading with the story?
A) I only make a very loose outline and go from there. That does tend to make for a lot of changes in editing and sometimes I have to print everything out to be able to move chapters around like a puzzle to try out various sequences. Cards might be a better way to do that. But every time I plan a story in detail, by the time I’ve arrived there, a lot has changed. I usually have an image I start with, and an ending, and try to reach that no matter how far removed it seems to be from the start. Sometimes I begin with the ending. For novels I see that planning a general structure is a good idea, but not go into details. Often it feels like I’m reading a story as I write. I’m writing it, but I’m also the story’s first reader.
Q) Do you have a strict writing schedule or get your work done in whatever windows the day offers? Do you write every day?
A) I would like to write or edit every day, but that’s not always possible. I don’t believe in a very strict schedule, because as a writer, I also need the time between projects to grow new ideas and inspiration and information and get new impulses and learn new things useful for writing. And some days the writing is just not there, while other times editing must take the front seat. I do like to edit as well, so that’s almost as fun as writing new things. I blame the liking for editing on my days as a computer gamer, where doing things over and over, while improving a little bit every day, was part of the game. Without that I wouldn’t have had the patience for round after round of editing.
A) I have a fantasy novella in the works I wrote a long time ago and didn’t know how to edit into shape. With more writing and editing experience, the novella has finally found its form. It’s about a scientist who has discovered that the Earth orbits the sun and not the other way around, as people believed for centuries, and is trying to convince her colleagues about this, despite many difficulties. The story is a twisted fairytale set in a city built on an enormous spiraling conch. I even think there’s a mummy in there too.
I’m also editing a novel set in the same world as Not Dark Yet, but introducing new characters. I can’t say much about it yet, since it will hopefully go into slush soon.
Q) Those ideas sound great! This has been awesome! I like to finish up with my guests by asking the same three questions so here we go: If you had to place a line from one of your books on your headstone, what would it be?
A) I think I would prefer this famous haiku by Basho:
all that remains
of warriors dreams
Q) I love haiku! What is your favorite restaurant and what is your favorite meal there?
A) (see answer below)
Q) If you could be an animal, what would it be and why?
A) Since I don’t have a favorite restaurant, I’ll give you three animals instead. I would have loved to be a snow leopard roaming the Himalayas, although in a world that was not getting warmer and warmer and having less and less space for far-roaming animals such as the snow leopard.
I have seen images of the beaches of South Georgia in the southern sea, not far from Antarctica. The King Penguins there seem to be living in a primal paradise, with the ocean, the snow-covered mountain, and grassy meadows. One Norwegian wildlife photographer has called the conditions there “paradisiacal”, and I would agree. Being a King Penguin there looks like the perfect life. But sadly, also this population is shrinking.
Third, the life of a polar bear in an Arctic that was not vanishing, but stable and still containing sea ice and food, looks like a hard, but beautiful animal life. Like the snow leopard, the polar bear roams vast distances, and it is perfectly suited to its habitat.
Yet with the world being what it is today, I think I prefer being a human.
Thank you so much for interviewing me for your blog.
You are welcome! I’d like to thank Berit Ellingsen for dropping by the blog and participating in this wonderful chat about her books and writing process. If you didn’t already pick up on this, Not Dark Yet is fabulous and I highly recommend it.
Also, I’ve included my entire FACEBOOK conversation with Berit below, from the day she was kind enough to respond to my note on her book, and we talked about some of the fascinating elements of her story:
“Richard Ellis Preston Jr: For starters, I’d like to put my reaction to “Not Dark Yet” here, right after I read it: “Just finished “Not Dark Yet” by Berit Ellingsen. Her novel was recommended by Jeff VanderMeer and Ann VanderMeer as a part of their Winter Mix Tape Storybundle. “Not Dark Yet” is a brilliant story about human love and frailty in a time of earth-catastrophe, written with a crystal clear sense of the moment but also haunted by a dreamlike undercurrent of something akin to synchronicity. One of those books you don’t soon forget.”
Berit Ellingsen: Thank you so much, Richard! Very happy to hear you enjoyed it! What examples of synchronicity did you find?
Richard Ellis Preston Jr.: Yay I get to discuss with the author! It was a really cool sense, Berit, and I’m not sure if “synchronicity” is the right word, which is why I added “akin to,” but I’ll elaborate. I had to look up the term to make sure I’m applying it the way I want to, and Jung’s description of “(synchronistic) events are ‘meaningful coincidences’ if they occur with no causal relationship, yet seem to be meaningfully related” seems right. 1) The intense, (apparently epileptic?) bright light which rises nightly inside the narrator and takes him away from the physical world seemed to me to be strongly but inexplicably linked to the powerfully described interior experience of death (brightness) for the monk in the shrine when he performed what I assume is Sokushinbutsu. Both experiences, though causally unrelated beyond the narrator passing the mummy in the shrine on a tourist visit, seem to be related and important because they both seem to signal a return to nothingness, or a Tao-like absorption back into the whole, as the narrator senses so strongly at the end of the book. 2) Also, the attack of the owl and the out-of-whack storms and balances of the natural world are superficially separate but more easily related, as natural elements mankind alters and seeks to control turn on him in a chaotic result proving potentially deadly for both parties involved.
Richard Ellis Preston Jr.: Now that I’m thinking about it, I also would like to add that perhaps the narrator is the monk reincarnated/reborn in the Buddhist tradition, which would be interesting in the sense that through his meditations and purely natural self-mummification he has earned glimpses of the brightness (enlightenment) of Nirvana but the collapse of the natural world has screwed both his and the world’s evolving consciousness up as well. The narrator and the world are sitting in a heap of bad karma, literally.
Berit Ellingsen: That’s an impressively thorough reading and understanding, Richard Ellis Preston Jr.! You are right on all accounts. Are you familiar with the Buddhist and Taoist traditions? They certainly inspired the book.
Richard Ellis Preston Jr.: Thanks, Berit – that’s quite a compliment coming from you. I’m big into the Tao and meditation, so I’m familiar with some elements of the Buddhist tradition. I was aware of the monk self-mummification, but I had to look up the actual word for it. That chapter was one of my favorites in the book.
Berit Ellingsen: Wow, Richard, I’m so glad and surprised to hear that. I actually thought most people would dislike that chapter because it looks so extreme from the view of a modern western life. I submitted the chapter a few places but I don’t think they liked it much. Some readers have said they enjoyed it. I’m impressed by your knowledge of the Taoist and Buddhist traditions. I find contemplative taoism and zen Buddhism say some very important things about life. When I researched the mummification, the articles emphasized that it was relatively rare, although mummies are found in Japan, Korea, China and Tibet. Probably other East-Asian countries too.
Richard Ellis Preston Jr.: The Tao is the best tool I personally have to understand life. I thought the monk chapter was a vivid, non-judgmental look into a real ritual I had never seen before. You did a fantastic job on the book. You certainly won me over as a fan. Bravo.”
AUTHOR BIO: BERIT ELLINGSEN
Berit Ellingsen is the author of two novels, Not Dark Yet (Two Dollar Radio), and Une ville vide (PublieMonde), as well as a collection of short stories, Beneath the Liquid Skin(Queen’s Ferry Press). Berit’s work has been published in W.W. Norton’s Flash Fiction International, SmokeLong Quarterly, Unstuck, Litro, and other places, and been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, and the British Science Fiction Association Award. Berit travels between Norway and Svalbard in the Arctic, and is a member of the Norwegian Authors’ Union.
Not Dark Yet http://twodollarradio.com/products/not-dark-yet
Une ville vide http://www.publie.net/livre/une-ville-vide-berit-ellingsen/
The Humanity of Monsters http://chizinepub.com/books/humanity-monsters
Flash Fiction International http://books.wwnorton.com/books/detail.aspx?ID=4294985211
Beneath the Liquid Skin